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Modeling Probability Knowledge and Choice in Decisions from Experience

Guy E. Hawkins
(guy.e.hawkins@gmail.com)

Adrian R. Camilleri
(adrian.camilleri@duke.edu)

University of New South Wales

Duke University

Andrew Heathcote
Ben R. Newell
(andrew.heathcote@newcastle.edu.au) (ben.newell@unsw.edu.au)
University of Newcastle

University of New South Wales

Abstract
In most everyday decisions we learn about the outcomes of alternative courses of action through experience: a sampling process. Current models of these decisions from experience do not
explain how the sample outcomes are used to form a representation of the distribution of outcomes. We overcome this limitation by developing a new and simple model, the Exemplar
Confusion (ExCon) model. In a novel experiment, the model
predicted participants choices and their knowledge of outcome probabilities, when choosing among multiple-outcome
gambles in sampling and feedback versions of the task. The
model also performed at least as well as other leading choice
models when evaluated against benchmark data from the Technion Prediction Tournament. Our approach advances current
understanding by proposing a psychological mechanism for
how probability estimates arise rather than using estimates
solely as inputs to choice models.
Keywords: Experience-based choice; Probability estimation;
Sampling; Feedback; Exemplar model

Utility Maximization Models


Most choice models describe behavior as if people multiply some function of the probability of an outcome by that
outcomes value, and maximize. The utility maximization
framework is fundamental to many successful models of
choice including Prospect Theory (Kahneman & Tversky,
1979) and Cumulative Prospect Theory (Tversky & Kahneman, 1992). Evaluation of these models has relied heavily
on decisions from description, where outcomes and their
associated probabilities are explicitly stated (Barron & Erev,
2003; Rakow & Newell, 2010). This focus neglects cognitive
processes that must underlie many everyday decisions where
probabilities and outcomes are not explicitly provided. In
such decisions from experience (Rakow & Newell, 2010),
decision-makers must explore their environment to establish the range of potential outcomes and the probability with
which each occurs. Here, we extend utility maximization
models to capture the process of acquiring knowledge of potential outcomes and the representation of their probabilities.

Decisions from Experience


In decisions from experience the decision-maker learns
about potential outcomes and their respective probabilities
by sequentially sampling outcomes from the environment.
This situation is modeled in the laboratory using two similar paradigms. In the feedback paradigm the outcome of
each sample is added to a running total that the decisionmaker is tasked with maximizing. The decision-maker must

Scott D. Brown
(scott.brown@newcastle.edu.au)
University of Newcastle

trade-off the objectives of learning more about the options


(to explore) while trying to maximize the payoff from an
unknown number of choices (to exploit). The sampling
paradigm separates these goals, allowing the decision-maker
to freely sample during an exploration stage and, at a time
of their choosing, proceed to an exploitation stage where a
single choice is made.
Preferences in the sampling and feedback paradigms tend
to be highly correlated (Erev et al., 2010) and suggest
that decision-makers underweight low-probability outcomes
(Camilleri & Newell, 2011b; Ungemach, Chater, & Stewart,
2009). This contrasts with preferences observed in the conventional description paradigm, where decision-makers appear to overweight low-probability outcomes (Kahneman &
Tversky, 1979). This description-experience gap can be reduced or eliminated in the sampling paradigm when samples
are equated (Rakow, Demes, & Newell, 2008; Camilleri &
Newell, 2011a). This suggests the description and experience
formats may share common core features the need to combine probability information with outcome values to inform
choice. Recent models of experience-based choice have not
retained utility maximization as a core feature. This may be
due to a failure to adequately capture the process by which
outcome distributions are represented.

Modeling Decisions from Experience


Several models of experience-based choice were recently
tested in the Technion Prediction Tournament (TPT), where
the organizers collected large datasets in the description, sampling, and feedback paradigms (Erev et al., 2010). The winner in each paradigm was the model that best predicted average choice in its own paradigm, with no incentive to develop
models that generalized across different tasks, such as the
sampling and feedback paradigms. The competition structure therefore did not prioritize capturing how sequentially
observed outcomes were integrated into a representation nor
how this representation could be used to model knowledge of
the outcome probabilities. In fact, some models took probability information as inputs to the modeling process.
An alternative approach is illustrated by exemplar models such as the ACT-R modeling framework (Anderson &
Lebiere, 1998) and the GCM (Nosofsky, 1986). Exemplar
models assume that a memory trace is recorded each time
a stimulus is encountered, which might include information
about the stimulus, the corresponding feedback, and the gen-

eral context in which the stimulus was encountered. Later,


the properties of an unfamiliar stimulus can be inferred from
the properties of related exemplars stored in memory. Exemplar models are not new in economic decision making
e.g., the k-sampler model (Erev et al., 2010) and the Instance
Based Learning (IBL) model (Gonzalez & Dutt, 2011) and
also have a much longer history in explaining many aspects
of higher-level cognition, such as categorization (e.g., Nosofsky, 1986) and probability judgment (e.g., Juslin & Persson,
2002). We argue that the storage of exemplars in memory
provides a simple and psychologically plausible approach to
explain decision-makers choices and the estimation of probability information about gambles in risky choice problems.

Modeling Probability Knowledge


Studies of experience-based choice have previously asked
decision-makers to estimate outcome probabilities and observed that estimates are either well calibrated (Fox & Hadar,
2006) or that rare events are overestimated (e.g., Camilleri &
Newell, 2009; Ungemach et al., 2009). This reveals a subtle paradox where decision-makers overestimate the probability of rare events yet make choices as if they underweight
rare events. A successful model of experience-based choice
should account for this overestimation-underweighting paradox, but this is only possible if the model accounts for probability knowledge to begin with.

feedback paradigms (cf. Erev et al., 2010). Participants observed more samples in the feedback than sampling condition, so we expected more accurate probability estimates from
those participants.

Method
Participants
107 undergraduate students from two Australian universities
participated for payment contingent on performance.

Materials and Design


Participants always made choices between two competing
lotteries; we denote such a pair of lotteries as a problem.
We used six lotteries in total, adopted from Lopes and Oden
(1999). Each lottery had five possible outcomes ranging from
$0 to $348. The outcome distribution was unique for each lottery but all had expected values of approximately $100 (Figure 1). The lotteries were unlabeled during the experiment,
but for discussion we adopt Lopes and Odens lottery names:
Riskless, Rectangular, Peaked, Bimodal, Shortshot, or Longshot, depending on the specific distribution of outcomes.

A New Approach
In developing our modeling approach, we highlight two limitations of the current choice modeling enterprise, exemplified
by the TPT. First, many current models are highly specific
and only successful in the task for which they were originally designed. Second, existing data and procedures make it
difficult to discriminate between models models that make
a variety of assumptions can perform nearly equally well.
This is due to the limited variability in the problem sets
(a binary choice between a safe option and a two-outcome
risky option), limited data sources used to constrain the models (solely choice), and a very general prediction goal (prediction of aggregated choice proportions). To the best of
our knowledge, no model has attempted to simultaneously
model choices and the outcome distributions associated with
the alternative options. Therefore, we constructed a general, exemplar-based model and evaluated it with respect to
two streams of data in multiple-outcome gambles: decisionmakers choices and their estimates of outcome probabilities,
in the sampling and feedback paradigms.

Experiment
Decision-makers were presented with pairs of five-outcome
lotteries in the sampling or feedback paradigms, and asked to
choose between the lotteries and estimate the probability of
each outcome. This allowed us to collect ten outcome probability estimates per gamble (five for each lottery), which were
used to constrain the model in subsequent analyses. We expected similar patterns of choice between the sampling and

Figure 1: Visual representation of the outcome distribution


for the six lotteries, adapted from Lopes and Oden (1999).
Participants were not presented with labels or figures.
Participants were allocated to the sampling or feedback
task. We measured participants preferences in each problem,
and their estimates of the probabilities of the outcomes from
the lotteries in the problem. In the sampling condition, lottery
preference was operationalized as the one-shot choice made
after the free sampling phase. In the feedback condition, lottery preference was operationalized as the deck selected most
frequently in the final 50 samples.1
The six lotteries can be ordered in 15 unique pairings (ignoring order, and without identical choices). Participants in
the sampling condition played each pairing once, with order
randomized across participants. To equate experiment length,
participants in the feedback condition played a random sample of six of the fifteen problems. Data were excluded from
1 Similar results were obtained when using the mode across all
100 samples or just the final sample.

Results
Preferences
Figure 2 displays the percentage of participants preferring
each lottery, averaged over all problems in which the lottery was presented. Participants generally favored lotteries
that minimized the possibility of obtaining zero (riskless,
peaked, shortshot), consistent with a negatively accelerated
utility function for gains, as assumed in many theories of

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Feedback
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Feedback

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Participants made a number of choices between computerized


decks of cards and were instructed to use their choices to earn
as much money as possible. The screen position (left, right)
and order of lotteries was randomized. Participants were presented with two unlabeled images of decks of cards, each
associated with a lottery from Figure 1. When a deck was
selected, an outcome was randomly sampled (with replacement) from the associated lottery and displayed briefly as if
the participant had turned over a playing card. We call the act
of selecting a deck and observing an outcome a sample.
The sampling task began with an exploration phase where
the participant could learn about the lotteries, so each sample
had no consequence. Participants terminated exploration at
any time to make a final choice indicating their lottery preference. The outcome of the final choice was added to the participants running total for the experiment. In the feedback task,
each problem granted 100 samples (participants were not told
the number of samples). Each of the 100 samples was consequential: the sample outcomes were added to the participants
running score, which was constantly displayed on screen.
After making a choice (sampling) or taking 100 samples
(feedback), participants estimated the probability of different
types of cards in each deck the probability of the different outcomes in the lotteries. Six different outcome values
were presented beside adjustable sliders with order randomized across problems and participants. The default starting
estimate was 0. Participants moved sliders between 0 and
100 to indicate the estimated percentage. One of the six outcomes was a foil that was not an outcome from the lottery
in question but was selected from one of the other decks. The
foil was used to identify participants who did not attend to the
sampling process. Participants proceeded to the next problem
when the sum of the sliders for each deck equaled 100% and
a confirmation button was clicked. At the end of the experiment participants were reimbursed by converting every 100
experiment dollars to AU$1 (contingent on choices, not probability estimates).

100

Procedure

choice. Preferences in the feedback and sampling paradigms


were positively correlated (r = .64, p = .01), consistent with
previous research (Erev et al., 2010).

Deck Preference (%)

problems where participants failed to sample from one of the


lotteries. Some participants did not complete all problems
during the one hour experiment so there were unequal sample
sizes: 40 participants in the sampling condition experienced
a total of 528 problems (3239 data points per problem), and
67 participants in the feedback condition experienced a total
of 386 problems (2232 data points per problem).

Figure 2: Percentage of participants preferring each lottery,


averaged over problems.
Preferences in the sampling and feedback conditions differed in two respects: under feedback there was a stronger
preference for the rectangular lottery (2 (1) = 4.89, p = .027)
but a weaker preference for the bimodal lottery (2 (1) = 7.07,
p = .008). Table 1 shows preferences between pairs of lotteries. Cell entries indicate the average preference for the
column-named lottery over the row-named lottery. Asterisks
denote preferences where a lottery was significantly preferred
over indifference (i.e., 5050) by z-test. For example, in the
first row of Table 1 the 79 value is asterisked, indicating that
a significant proportion of participants preferred the peaked
lottery over the longshot lottery in the sampling condition.

Probability Knowledge
Figure 3 plots median probability estimates assigned to outcomes against the actual sampled frequency of those outcomes, in the samples observed by participants.2 Participants had good knowledge of the outcome probabilities: in
both conditions the median estimate assigned to outcomes
increased almost always with increasing sample probability.
Nevertheless, there was a tendency to overestimate the probability of rare outcomes and underestimate the probability of
frequent outcomes, indicated by the inverted-S shapes in Figure 3. This pattern appeared in the sampling and feedback
paradigms, and was unchanged when probability estimates
were graphed against the population probability of the outcome (i.e., the proportion of times it would appear in the long
run, Figure 1) rather than the sampled frequency of the out2 Participant estimates of the probability of foil outcomes were
accurate. Foil cards were assigned zero probability in 62% of problems. On the remaining problems, this estimate was still small
11% on average and on 37% of these trials the foil was assigned the
smallest of the estimated probabilities. Since the foils were mostly
well identified by participants we do not analyze those data further.

LS
BM
RC
SS
PK

RL
62 (84)
82 (99)
59 (95)
44 (95)
39 (86)

Feedback
PK
SS
72 (73) 88 (61)
70 (76) 88 (79)
79 (73) 56 (56)
70 (63)

RC
63 (46)
62 (80)

BM
55 (52)

come (i.e., the proportion of times it really did appear, in the


samples observed by participants).
We confirmed the statistical reliability of differences between the pattern of estimated versus sampled probabilities
and the y = x line (which indicates probability estimates that
perfectly reflect the sampled probabilities) using the WaldWolfowitz (or runs) test. This analysis examines the sign of
successive residuals under the null hypothesis that residuals
should be randomly distributed either side of zero. There was
non-random scatter around the y = x line in both paradigms,
both ps < .001, reflecting the run of positive residuals for
low sample probabilities and negative residuals for high sample probabilities.3

Exemplar Confusion: An Account of Choices


and Probability Knowledge
Exemplar models assume that observers record a memory
trace each time they encounter a stimulus, and later use these
traces to make inferences about their experiences. The exemplar confusion (ExCon) model employs this idea as an extension of the primed sampler models described by Erev et
al. (2010), which we refer to as a k-sampler. The standard k3 A mundane explanation for the inverse-S shape of the probability estimates is a mixture of participants, some who were perfectly
calibrated (y = x line) and others who were not engaged in the task
(probability estimates unrelated to the sampled probabilities horizontal lines at y .2), which could lead to the inverted-S shapes
even if no individual participant displayed such a pattern. We ruled
out this explanation by removing many participants to leave us with
only the very best (those most likely to be engaged in the task), and
the inverted-S shape remained (graphs not shown).

.5

Probability Estimate

Table 1: Percentage of participants preferring the columnnamed lottery over the row-named lottery, separately for the
sampling and feedback conditions. ExCon model predictions
are shown in parentheses. Lottery pairings for which data and
model had the same modal preference are shown in bold face.
Abbreviations refer to deck type: RL=riskless, PK=peaked,
SS=shortshot, RC=rectangular, BM=bimodal, LS=longshot.
p < .05 by z-test.
Sampling
RL
PK
SS
RC
BM
LS
60 (73) 79 (62) 75 (48) 46 (39) 49 (23)
BM 55 (88) 69 (77)
59 (59) 39 (48)
RC 59 (89) 64 (73)
58 (55)
SS
47 (73) 66 (82)
PK 39 (78)

Feedback Paradigm

Sampling Paradigm

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.1
0
0

.1

.2

.3

.4

.5

.1

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.3

.4

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Sampled Probability

Figure 3: Probability estimates from participants (y-axes)


against the sampled probability for the corresponding outcome (x-axes) in the sampling (left panel) and feedback (right
panel) conditions. Circles show medians, whiskers show 5th
and 95th percentiles across participants. Gray identity lines
indicate probability estimates that perfectly reflect the sampled probabilities. Black lines show median probability estimates of the ExCon model.

sampler draws k samples from each lottery and prefers the lottery with the greater sample mean. The k-sampler instantiates
a limited memory capacity (only k exemplars per lottery are
maintained). Despite its simplicity, the k-sampler provides a
reasonable account of choice data compared to more complex
models (e.g., Erev et al., 2010). However, the k-sampler fails
to capture biased probability knowledge because it necessarily predicts accurate estimates, on average.
The ExCon model makes two modifications to the ksampler. First, ExCon replaces the k-samplers limit on memory capacity (k) with a limit on memory accuracy. We instantiate memory imperfection by degrading the information
content of exemplars: a sample-by-sample confusion process
where new exemplars can interfere with previously stored exemplars. This form of confusion occurs with the passing of
events rather than the passing of time alone, which has precedence in the memory literature (e.g., Lewandowsky, Geiger,
& Oberauer, 2008).
The confusion process occurs as follows. Each lottery begins with an empty, limitless memory store. When a sample
outcome is observed a memory trace of the outcome value is
added to the corresponding lottery store, and the confusion
process then operates which leads to a small chance of confusing the exemplars within that store. Each exemplar in the
store has a fixed probability (p) of having its outcome value
confused substituted with the outcome value from another
exemplar already in the store. If an exemplars outcome value
is confused, the new outcome value assigned to that exemplar
is chosen uniformly from the list of all exemplar labels in the
store (rather than uniformly from the distribution of all exemplars in the store). The p parameter governing the exemplar
confusion process is the sole free parameter of the model to
be estimated from data.

The ExCon also differs to the k-sampler in the adoption of


a utility maximization rule: ExCon prefers the lottery whose
exemplar store has the highest average utility. We implemented the diminishing marginal utility function for gains
specified by Lopes and Oden (1999): u(x) = x0.551 . This duplication reflects our belief that the choice rule at the core
of both description and experience-based choice is the expected utility theory assumption of multiplying some function of probability with an outcome value, and maximizing.

ExCon Implementation
The ExCon model was given the same sequences of outcomes
experienced by the participants on a problem-by-problem basis. The sequences of outcomes were shown to the model 100
times (i.e., 100 Monte-Carlo replicates for every real participant). After the sampling process had finished, model preference was inferred differently for the sampling and feedback
paradigms consistent with the human data. In the sampling
paradigm, the model preferred the lottery with the highest average utility. In the feedback paradigm, after each sample
outcome the ExCons decision rule determined which lottery
would be chosen on the following sample, for all 100 samples in each problem, and the preference of the Monte-Carlo
replicate was taken as its modal choice over the last 50 trials.
We simulated model predictions for 20 values of the p
parameter on [0, .1]. The upper end of this interval implies a high degree of confusion: with a .1 chance of confusion at each sample, the probability of accurately maintaining a single memory trace (exemplar) following 10 samples is (1 .1)10 = .349, and following 100 samples is only
(1 .1)100 < .001. The ExCon instantiates that a single exemplar is increasingly likely to be confused as new exemplars
enter the store. Nonetheless, the set of exemplars will approximate the true distribution with increasing accuracy up until a
certain sample size, after which the set of exemplars become
noisier.
We assessed the goodness-of-fit on the ExCons ability to
predict two outcome measures in data: choice and probability knowledge. Choice prediction accuracy was calculated
as the proportion of times the model successfully predicted
the choice made by the participant when exposed to the same
sequence of samples for each problem, which we refer to as
trial-by-trial agreement. Probability estimate prediction accuracy was calculated as the sum of the squared deviations
between participant and model probability estimates across
the sampled probability bins. This measures an average distance between the data and the model when represented in
a plot such as Figure 3. Probability estimates were derived
from the frequency of each outcome in the ExCon memory
stores. The best-fitting parameter estimates were those that
maximized goodness-of-fit to choices and minimized prediction error in probability estimate data. Parameters were estimated separately for the sampling and feedback tasks.

ExCon Evaluation
Choice Behavior
With p = .033 (sampling) and p = .027 (feedback), the ExCon model had 65.3% and 70.7% trial-by-trial agreement
with preference data from the sampling and feedback tasks,
respectively. In isolation it is difficult to determine whether
this reflects good performance, so we provide two benchmark
comparisons. The first benchmark was the natural mean
heuristic, which prefers the lottery with the highest observed
sample mean (Hertwig & Pleskac, 2008). The ExCon reduces
to the natural mean heuristic when p = 0 and assuming a linear utility function. The ExCon model outperforms the natural mean heuristic in both tasks (sampling 62.9%, feedback
64.5%). The second benchmark maximized choice in light
of the inferred expected value of each lottery as indicated
by participants probability estimates, and was also outperformed by the ExCon model (sampling 62.9%, feedback
56.7%). The success of the ExCon relative to the two benchmarks highlights the benefit of a choice rule that maximizes
utility rather than value.
The average ExCon choice between pairs of lotteries is displayed in Table 1; bold face shows lottery pairings for which
ExCon produced the same modal preference as the participants (i.e., both data and model scored above or below 50%).
On this lottery-by-lottery basis, the model correctly predicted
24 out of 30 lottery preferences observed in data even though
the model was not explicitly fit to this table.

Probability Estimates
The black lines in Figure 3 illustrate the ExCon probability
estimate predictions. The model captures the qualitative patterns in the probability estimates overestimation of rare outcomes and underestimation of common outcomes.

Technion Prediction Tournament


We now demonstrate that the ExCon model performs as well
as leading competitor models when given a benchmark set
of problems from the TPT (Erev et al., 2010). The TPT
evaluated models separately for the sampling and feedback
paradigms using a common problem set (for details, see Erev
et al., 2010). The TPT used one data set for model calibration, and another data set for the evaluation (from an identical problem distribution as the original problems). We simulated the process of entering the ExCon model in the TPT,
following TPT guidelines: we estimated model parameters
using the estimation data set, and used those parameter values to evaluate predictive performance in the competition data
set. In the TPT, model performance was evaluated using the
average proportion of agreement (across problems) between
the modal preference of the model and of the participants
(e.g., Erev et al., 2010), which we refer to as PAgree. Our
measure of trial-by-trial agreement reported above maintains
more information than PAgree, but for ease of comparison
we use the common metric of PAgree values to compare our
results to those from the TPT (cf. Table 3, Erev et al.).

The ExCon model performed approximately as well as


the winners and runners-up in the sampling and feedback
paradigms, in contrast to the TPT where each model was successful in the sampling or feedback paradigm see Table 2.
The best-fitting parameter values tended toward extremes of
the parameter space (p 0). However, the choice data from
the TPT did not constrain the confusion parameter of the ExCon; similar PAgree predictions were observed across the examined parameter space of the model. This result was not restricted to the ExCon: we performed the same model fits with
the k-sampler and the three-parameter instance based learning
(IBL; Gonzalez & Dutt, 2011) models, and found that the parameters of those models were also under-constrained when
the models were examined solely against choice data. This
under-constraint reinforces the need for multiple streams of
data, and richer problem sets, in evaluating modern choice
models.
Table 2: PAgree for the ExCon model and TPT winner in
the sampling and feedback paradigms, for the estimation and
competition data sets.
Estimation
Competition
ExCon TPT
ExCon TPT
Sampling
91.4
95
92.7
83
Feedback
83.3
82
83.3
87

Conclusions
We addressed two issues regarding experience-based choice.
Firstly, models of experience-based choice should account
not only for participants choices in multiple paradigms and
datasets but also the process by which participants construct
and represent the probability distributions upon which those
choices are based. To that end we designed a new model the
exemplar confusion model (ExCon) that provides a process
explanation of how people might acquire knowledge of outcome distributions. We assumed that sampled outcomes are
stored as memory traces exemplars and represent the outcome distribution for alternative options. We also assumed
an imperfect, noisy memory system implemented as a confusion process. The confusion process operated each time a
new exemplar was stored, similar to retroactive memory interference. The ExCon successfully predicted decision-makers
behavior across two experience-based choice paradigms in a
novel data set and an important existing dataset (the TPT).
Our second point relates to model evaluation. Examination of solely choice data, as in the TPT, may not sufficiently
constrain models, and therefore permits models with different assumptions to perform equally well. Under-constraint is
due to limited variability in the problem sets (binary choices
between a safe option and a two-outcome risky option), limited data sources to constrain models (only choice), and a
very general prediction goal (aggregated choice proportion).
In collecting probability estimates we departed from previous models of risky choice (e.g., Prospect Theory) which in-

fer probability weighting from choices or measure probability


estimates to serve as model inputs. One of our novel contributions is to instead use this stream of data to constrain model
development. With this constraint we developed a model of
how discovered information is used to construct a representation, and how that representation is used to form a preference.
A challenge for future research is to develop a comprehensive
model that also incorporates information search.

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